by Phil Freeman
Guitarist Pete Cosey died May 30 at the age of 68. He’s almost certainly best known for his work on Miles Davis‘s astonishing early ’70s albums Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Agharta and Pangaea, as well as a huge amount of previously unreleased material now available in the Complete On The Corner Sessions box. But he can also be heard on Muddy Waters‘ Electric Mud and After the Rain, and Howlin’ Wolf‘s The Howlin’ Wolf Album—records scorned by blues purists (and Howlin’ Wolf) at the time, but now regarded as highly adventurous and rewarding experiments in psychedelic blues-rock. Cosey also played on Phil Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble‘s On the Beach, the title track from Herbie Hancock‘s Future Shock; and Japanese saxophonist Akira Sakata‘s Fisherman’s.com. (The latter two albums were produced by Bill Laswell, a major devotee of Cosey’s work.) And he made a memorable appearance on Burnt Sugar’s The Rites, their improvised/conducted extrapolation of Igor Stravinsky‘s Le Sacre du Printemps.
Obviously, I discussed Cosey’s work extensively in my 2005 book Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis. In one chapter, I wrote:
“Pete Cosey was a real discovery. A blues guitarist from Chicago and member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), he first got noticed playing some of the most acid-bathed solos on Muddy Waters‘ 1968 distortionfest Electric Mud. His raw, bluesy sound was what got him the job with Miles. In his autobiography, Davis says Cosey ‘gave me that Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters sound that I wanted.’ That’s not a wholly fair assessment (the guitarist actually receives fairly dismissive treatment in the book), but it’s a good starting point, at least.
“Cosey was one of the most adventurous and consistently surprising guitarists of the 1970s, in any genre. His command of sound—feedback, amplifier buzz, even electronics on their own—left McLaughlin in the dust. In addition to guitar, Cosey played a tabletop’s worth of Art Ensemble-style ‘little instruments’ (bells, shakers, etc.) and the EMS Synthi A synthesizer. It’s not a synthesizer in the way one typically thinks of those instruments. It’s got no keyboard, only switches, knobs, and buttons. It’s thus incapable of any real melodies and good only for abstract sounds. Fortunately, Cosey was a master of inserting those into the quieter moments of Miles’s sets.
“While Miles’s name was on the marquee, Cosey was often the real star of the show…Davis was still soloing at length, when he felt up to it, but his lead guitarist was frequently the most creative member of the band, making the most of every spotlight opportunity he got. He’s all over both Agharta and Pangaea, roaring, screeching, snarling; his fingers fly across the fretboard, but it’s more than mere technical showboating. Cosey used alternate tunings and dissonance long before avant-rockers like Sonic Youth made a fetish of them. The first time you hear him, he may seem to be working in a post-Hendrix mode. That’s the easiest reference to make, but Pete and Jimi were actually contemporaries and likely took ideas from each other.
“It’s also important to remember that Cosey wasn’t just a noise terrorist; he was more than capable of tender, melodic playing. The second disc of Pangaea, ‘Gondwana,’ certainly demonstrates that. The music, led more by Sonny Fortune‘s flute and Michael Henderson‘s throbbing, loping basslines than by Miles’s trumpet, drifts for nearly an hour. It feels like Fourth World fusion before there was such a term, combining dubwise bass with tender, muted horns, rock drumming, and African percussion. Cosey’s guitar skitters peripatetically, like an animal moving from one hiding place to another in a midnight desert.”
In our interview for the oral history of Burnt Sugar, published in Burning Ambulance #5, Greg Tate said of Cosey and The Rites:
“I’d been wanting the Sugar to do a major project with Butch Morris, to solidify the connection between his Conductions and ours. After we set the studio date, it turned out Jared couldn’t make it and Melvin Gibbs could. Then we found out Pete Cosey was going to be in town to work with Mel, so some serendipity was in the house. In one stroke we paid homage to Stravinsky, to Cosey and the Agharta band, to Butch and his invention of Conduction, and to that awesome and under-sung Power Tools album Gibbs had done with Bill Frisell and [Ronald] Shannon Jackson back in 1987—in my humble opinion, the most paradigm-shifting power trio record since Band of Gypsys…Pete Cosey, I’ve known since the early ’80s, housed him or found him free lodging. He’s the background radiation and patron saint of out guitar players. First time we played Chicago, he came, said he wanted to jump onstage and jam but didn’t know the format. I said, ‘Man, you are the format.’”
Bill Milkowski interviewed Cosey for Jazz Times in 2007 (that’s where the photo above comes from). Read that piece here.
Here’s a clip of Cosey with Miles in Vienna, 1973: